Monday, May 20, 2013

Come back Arch Duke Franz - all is forgiven

Wull ye no come back again, Arch Duke Franz of Bavaria? The Kirk dropped a constitutional bombshell into the referendum campaign last week by suggesting that Scottish monarchs should be crowned in Scotland after independence. The last king to have been so invested was Charles 11 in 1651, who was of course a Catholic.   Direct in line through the Jacobite succession today is one Franz of Bavaria, an amiable octogenarian who may not fully appreciate that he is King over the Water.

The Restoration didn't end too well for the Presbyterians back in the day. It led to the “Killing Time” of the 1680s - when thumbscrews and the gallows were the penalties Presbyterians suffered for holding their open-air 'conventicles'.     The Act of Settlement in 1701 prevented Catholics from becoming monarchs ever again, and we are still signed up to that – much to the frustration of Alex Salmond who has been trying to get the Act changed so that it no longer discriminates against Catholics.

Which might be why the Kirk also called last week for the Church of Scotland to be called the National Church of Scotland.  If the Jacobites got their hands back on the throne, Franz might be minded to bring back thumbscrews for Protestants. And then invade England.

What does all this mean? Well, almost nothing, since no one seriously takes issue with the Hanoverian succession these days, and few of us are members of any church. But it provided another perplexing constitutional issue for Scots to worry about as they await the referendum, or should that be referendoom,  in September 2014.    Like the threat that Scotland's bank notes may be taken away, as alleged by the UK Treasury's latest broadside against independence. Not content with oor Pandas, they will even take oor poonds.

Brexit - But what happens to Scotland?


It seems only yesterday that everyone was talking about a "Grexit" - the forecast, made by most of the UK press, that Greece was about to leave the European Union because of the onerous bailout terms imposed by the EU and IMF. Now, suddenly, we are talking about the "Brexit" - the possibility, indeed probability, of a British exit from Europe when the current Lisbon Treaty comes up for negotiation in 2015.

Last week, three prominent Tory grandees - the former Chancellor, Lord Lawson, the former Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, called for British withdrawal from the European Union. The former Tory Scottish Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind said they'd "hurled a hand-grenade into a small building". It certainly put a bomb under David Cameron's policy of promising to renegotiate the terms of British membership, and then putting the result to a referendum after the next general election. Tory backbenchers, emboldened by Lord Lawson and co. are demanding a firm commitment right away. Labour says it is opposed to a referendum now, but agrees on the need for reform, and is not ruling out its own referendum on independence from Europe.

Viewed from Scotland, where opposition to Europe is muted and where we have another referendum on our minds, this all seems more than a little surprising. Most Scots still want to stay in the EU, according to the latest Ipsos Mori poll, and only a third want out. But in England - especially the south - there has been a growing frustration with Europe that finally erupted two weeks ago in the English local elections, when UKIP - the party seeking withdrawal from the EU - won up to 25% of the vote. There is little doubt that many people in England feel that Europe is a "bureaucratic monstrosity" to use Lord Lawson's description, and that their democracy is being subverted by Brussels.

But what exactly do they mean by this? When you ask eurosceptic Tory MPs they tend to reply with relatively trivial examples - compulsory seat belts for children under 12, regulations on food standards, health and hygiene. Those infamous straight bananas. But most of these relate to the terms under which the UK is a member of the Single European Market, where standardisation is necessary to ensure a level playing field for all trading nations.

Similarly, the social protections of the EU, like the working time directive, are intended to make the single market work fairly and prevent some countries seeking advantage by forcing their workers to spend longer at work. The "social Europe" as it is called is hardly onerous, and Britain anyway has an opt out from the 48hr working week.

Eurosceptics also talk of the Human Rights Act and claim that the failure to deport suspected terrorists like Abu Qatada has something to do with the European Union. This is completely wrong. The Human Rights Act is based on the European Convention on Human Rights which was set up by Winston Churchill after the Second World War to prevent totalitarianism returning to Europe.

None of these, it seems to me, are reasons to go to war with Europe, and deny the benefits of the single market which has undoubtedly boosted prosperity. Trade within Europe has doubled since 1992, thanks to the abolition of tariffs and barriers to the free movement of goods and services in Europe.

Europe is a good thing. Honest.

   It was typical of the Guardian to try to suggest some equivalence between Nigel Farrage's UKIP and Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party.   At an editorial level the Guardian has always found it hard to understand that the SNP is not a nationalist party in the conventional sense and is not based on any concept of ethnic chauvinism.  Don't they ever bother to read its election manifestos?   

   The SNP is probably the left wing and most multicultural political party in Britain with any significant parliamentary representation in Britain.  It was the first party to have a muslim MSP; it supports an open immigration policy; its external affairs spokesman is Hums  I gave up trying to make this clear in pieces I have written for them in recent years, and I am not a member of the SNP and don't describe myself as a nationalists.  

   What metropolitan papers cannot quite understand is that the political culture is different in Scotland.   The Radical Scotland demonstrators who barracked Farrage called him a racist and a homophobe.  They were not attacking him for his nationality.  It was convenient for him to present it this way, but it was nauseating to see papers like the Guardian echoing his English nationalist misrepresentation and giving prominence to the equally mendacious accusations by discredited figures like Lord George Foulkes that the SNP condones anti-English racism.  

   It is Labour that has been trying to foment racial antagonism recently.  The most egregious example was the former Labour election candidate, Ian Smart's, claim that the SNP wanted to send home "Pakis and Poles".    It is a matter of record that Labour First Ministers, both SNP and Labour, have been arguing for greater immigration to Scotland and against the policies of the UK government.  Jack McConnell and Alex Salmond don't agree on many things, but they are at one on the need for Scotland to receive workers from abroad in order to revive the Scottish economy.   

   The SNP supports same sex marriage and wants to keep Scotland in Europe.  It's a measure of how attitudes to Europe have changed in Britain over the last twenty years, that anti-Europeans like Nigel Farrage of UKIP, who was barracked in an Edinburgh pub last week, are now regarded almost as members of the political mainstream. In England at least. 

    The term "eurosceptic" was originally coined to describe the minority of mainly Tory MPs in the early 1990s who opposed the Maastricht Treaty. But the term has become redundant because almost all Conservatives are now of that persuasion. Over 100 are so hostile, they voted against their own Prime Minister's Queens Speech last week because there wasn't an immediate referendum on withdrawal.  Britain, it seems,  is on its way out.

      David Cameron has already promised an in out referendum after the next election. Labour and the Liberal Democrats also support a referendum if there are significant changes to Britain's relationship to Europe, which seem almost inevitable now. Ironically, the only party that doesn't seem to want to repatriate powers from Brussels is the SNP, which wants to take Scotland out of the UK but not the EU. It is almost impossible to find anyone in Britain who makes the positive case for European economic integration any more, now that the eurozone crisis has led to mass unemployment and falling living standards in countries like Spain and Greece

Yet, for people of my generation, it is hard to regard the Europe as anything other than a huge advance in European civilisation. I can remember when it was impossible to travel to Eastern European countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Latvia. They were communist dictatorships, closed societies, where often impoverished populations lived in fear of the state and had no human rights. They were part of a military alliance which threatened the very security of the West. Now these countries are vibrant European democracies and pose no threat to anyone. This has happened in only twenty five years - the blink of an eye in historical terms.

Of course, eurosceptics say that this has more to do with Ryanair than the European Union. That these countries have become part of the European family simply because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of capitalism. Conservatives like the former MEP Daniel Hannon, say that Europe itself today poses a threat to democracy because of its bureaucratic institutions and its lack of respect for diversity among the 27 member states. But no one who recalls the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 could deny that Europe played a part in the democratization of Europe. It is not just a willingness to host stag and hen parties that gets you into the European Union.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Postpone the referendum? How can Scots decide on staying in the UK if they don't know whether the UK is staying in the EU?


   “Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”. That's the question that looks increasingly likely to be asked of British voters in a referendum in the near future. It is in the draft bill offered by David Cameron to assuage his eurosceptic backbenchers.  It didn't, and 116 of them demonstrated their continued dissatisfaction by voting against their own government's  Queen's Speech.  They still don't believe their leader is serious about holding an in out referendum and want a commitment before 2015. 

Labour's Ed Milliband has been enjoying David Cameron's latest troubles over Europe immensely. It is redolent of the mess the Conservatives found themselves in during the early 1990s, when John Major was unable to control his eurosceptic “B@@tards”. But Miliband may not be smiling for long, because things have moved on and Britain, or rather England, appears to be increasingly hostile to the European Union. The pressure will mount on Labour before the next general election to give its own commitment to a referendum on Europe, especially if, as expected, UKIP effectively win the European Elections in May 2014. 

   I don't see how the Labour leader can refuse.  Indeed, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats already accept that there should be a referendum if there is any “substantial” change in Britain's relationship to Europe. Since Europe is in the process of reviewing the EU treaties prior to introducing a banking and fiscal union, that substantial change looks increasingly likely. Yesterday, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, said it was a matter of “when not if” there will be a referendum on Europe.

Europe has become the dominant issue in UK politics, and it increasingly looks as if Britain is, if not on its way out, then moving towards a much looser relationship. But where does this leave Scotland? We have a referendum on independence in September in September 2014 in which Scots will be asked whether they want to be out of the UK but in Europe. Then, shortly after, they will be asked in a referendum whether we want to stay in the UK but out of Europe. I don't know about the voters, but I'm confused. I'm not even sure it is possible to have a view on staying in the UK if we don't know whether Britain is staying in Europe.

Indeed, as the constitutional lawyer, Alan Trench has suggested, there is a case for delaying the Scottish referendum until the UK's position in Europe has been resolved. This is because the information essential for making a determination on independence for Scotland will not be available to Scots when they make their choice in September 2014. Will a No vote also be a vote, effectively, to leave Europe - a proposition that a majority of Scots reject? We don't know.